The Budget Debate Should Be About Ideas Not Personalities

Charlie Arlinghaus

November 12, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Campaigns used to tell us what came next. This one offered few clues to the people about what those unfortunate enough to be elected will do to us now that they have the reins of government. What they must not do is simply look to the next election and use this as a two year dance to enhance the positioning of one politician or another for 2016. Some compromise may be called for but every politician should look to do the right thing before they abandon all initiative in the face of bipartisan milquetoast.

Voters did not send a clear message. Each party will spin the results to claim that its successes are clear mandates while its failures were merely anomalies. But the truth is always and everywhere radically different from the mush coming out of the mouths of anyone working for what is ironically called an organized political party. The truth is that voters sent a mixed message. They elected legislators and councilors of one party and a governor of another. Neither need cave into the other.

The last election was remarkably free of substance. It was an election characterized by nasty attacks from all sides on the character of political opponents rather than pushing something resembling an agenda or a program. In that environment, voters can only expect that those elected will work hard to do what they think is right.

What a legislator or governor thinks is right ought not be sacrificed to the talking heads of the other side who claim to have divined the real thoughts of the electorate. Just as important, it ought not be sacrificed to some mythological middle ground known as compromise or consensus.

I like to regularly remind legislators about Margaret Thatcher’s wise words regarding consensus. Thatcher said, “To me consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects—the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead.”

Lady Thatcher’s advice was always right and politicians of both parties should heed it. The state faces problems. We elected you to solve them. To spend two years trying to punt or trying to affix blame to the other side is not what you were elected for. If you aspire to another office, the way forward is to do something. Show some leadership and go forward trying to fix the problems we face.

At the end of the day, I expect to disagree with solutions most politicians propose. But you and I are much more likely to be forgiving and even supportive if we have the sense that a proposal is what he or she thought was right. We want to believe that an elected official is trying to succeed, not just trying to get by.

The state faces a series of problems which many politicians are reluctant to tackle or unsure how to tackle. First and foremost, a budget crisis continues but the details are not completely apparent. The silly elections intervened and politics kept some information from being shared. The election is now over and the problem is likely to be big – perhaps in the hundreds of millions if we add the current shortfall to the prospective one next year.

In all likelihood, Democrats will hate most Republican ideas and vice versa. But history has shown us that crises can be solved not by ignoring your political enemy but by each side co-opting some ideas of the other side. Even in the contentious legislature of 2011-12, Republican majorities were willing to adopt or modify some ideas originally presented by a Democratic governor. The final budget included much that he didn’t like but then-Gov. Lynch let it slip by his veto pen unscathed.

Republicans should expect Gov. Hassan to put forth to them and the public ideas she thinks are important. She should not be expected to abandon her beliefs any more than they should be expected to abandon theirs. A budget of their own making could include good ideas of hers and many of their own.

But please let us agree that the process should be a contest of ideas and not the insipid screeching about personalities that has so traumatically poisoned the process we call elections.